Alabama District Court Judge Denies Summary Judgment for Defendant In Race Discrimination Case

On July 17, 2014, a federal judge issued an order denying summary judgment to the defendant in the case Clayton v. Golden Bird Acquisition LLC. In the lawsuit, plaintiff Sylvia L. Clayton alleges that her employer, a Krystal restaurant in Trussville, AL, denied her many requests for promotion to the position of “Master Cashier” because of her race. Judge William M. Acker, Jr. found that the appropriate framework for deciding the case is the “tired and sometimes tiresome burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green.” This framework calls for three stages of argument: i) plaintiff establishes a prima facie case of racial discrimination; ii) the employer offers some nondiscriminatory reason for the acts in question; and iii) the complainant tries to show that the proffered nondiscriminatory reasons are pretextual.

In most ways this case is fairly ordinary, but much of Judge Acker’s analysis is interesting and even entertaining. At the outset he notes that neither side begins with a strong argument–“Frankly,” he states, “both parties’ cases are fragile…” The plaintiff shows that the defendant’s process of evaluating and promoting her was “callous, blundering, and even dishonest,” but also provides “little evidence that race had anything to do with it.” Over the course of almost four years Ms. Clayton made her desire to be promoted clear to three different managers, each of whom told her that that they were “working on it.” She eventually received a Master Cashier shirt with her name on it, but was never officially given the promotion, the title, or the accompanying pay raise. In the meantime, several other people, both white, were offered the position of Master Cashier.

It is unclear whether Ms. Clayton was ever actually given the promotion. So one interesting feature of the case is that the plaintiff’s argument takes the form of a dilemma: either the defendant discriminated against her by failing to promote her, or else they discriminated against her by unlawfully denying her pay equal to that of other Master Cashiers.

Whichever horn of the dilemma is chosen, the plaintiff would have the difficult task showing that the denial of promotion or pay was the result of racial discrimination. But this is where the Judge’s analysis gets most interesting. “Plaintiff’s lack of affirmative evidence…is not fatal to her case,” Judge Acker states, because “it is permissible…for the trier of fact to infer the ultimate fact of discrimination from the falsity of the employer’s explanation.” He continues “plaintiff can rest her case entirely on the inadequacy of defendant’s explanation, rather than the adequacy of her own. Defendant certainly has provided her the opportunity to do so.” The defendant’s testimony and arguments contain several inconsistent or implausible claims. For example, they argue that the plaintiff never expressed an interest in the position of Master Cashier to one manager, although many others testified that she had done so. The defendant also argues that they did not consider plaintiff to be a deserving employee, but this argument is based on the testimony of a manager who was later fired for embezzlement, and thus had questionable credibility, and in any case there is “abundant evidence that plaintiff’s performance was conspicuously good and evidence that Moore expressed optimism about her promotion throughout his tenure.” Finally, the defendant claims that Ms. Clayton was not promoted prior to 2012 because she had not completed the requisite training, but this claim is belied by the fact that they promoted several other cashiers whose training was also incomplete at the time.

The Court clearly found the defendant in this case to have a severe credibility problem. In fact, making light of the defendant’s use of italics and bold print for emphasis in their briefs, the Judge quipped “The court ought to coin a new legal Latinism to capture the phenomenon that the more emphasis is placed on text, the less likely the text is to be true. The maxim would apply here…”

If you are an employee and you believe you have been denied employment or promotion because of your race, please call The Harman Firm, LLP.